In the late 1940s and the early '50s, a search through sale barns for feeder cattle for Midwest feedlots was a difficult procedure. At that time, Iowa had over 8 million head of beef cows with an average herd size of 50-60 cows. The dominant breeds were Angus and Hereford. The exotics hadn't really hit yet but were being discussed.
Various studies revealed that the calf crop varied tremendously. The average calf crop weighed nearly 400 lbs. at weaning time, which was usually when the corn was cribbed or the calves were six to seven months of age.
The majority of calves were sold with horns and testicles, and very few were vaccinated against the bovine respiratory complex. This included IBR, BVD and Pasteurella, which all fell under the “shipping fever complex.” Blackleg was frequently encountered, thus many calves were only vaccinated for Blackleg before they were weaned.
What few records were kept indicated that more than half of calves got sick within 7 to 10 days of arrival at the feedlot. Plus, 5-8% of the animals — sometimes as many as 20% — died from shipping fever.
In an effort to stop this costly situation, a group of Iowa veterinarians and cattlemen designed a program that involved the essentials of preventive medicine and good husbandry. The program recommended weaning of calves prior to sale or movement. Also, it called for vaccination against shipping fever at least three weeks prior to shipment, as well as castration, dehorning and treatment for grubs. The program — called preconditioning — was launched in 1953.
Iowa cattlemen endorsed the program instituted by the Iowa Extension Service. Sale barn operators reluctantly signed on and preconditioned-only sales were held throughout the state. The first year, 350,000 calves were processed and sold through Iowa sale barns.
At the onset, the program drew a great deal of resistance. Within a few years, however, more than 800,000 animals were preconditioned in Iowa alone.
The program then spread to other Midwest states, but only amid great resistance. Many noted cattlemen and leading veterinarians spoke loudly against the program, and the National Cattlemen's Association refused to endorse it.
Once the program was accepted, however, cow/calf producers earned more money for their calves. And, cattle feeders who bought only preconditioned calves found that morbidity and mortality in these animals was significantly less in the feedlot.
Today, almost 50 years later, major cow/calf producers and feedlots still utilize the program. In fact, an estimated 75% of all calves raised today are preconditioned. Today, preconditioning is an essential management tool for overall beef quality, but it took years for adoption.
I'm amazed how many “starters” of the great preconditioning program seem to exist today. When I launched the first program in Iowa 50 years ago, I took one hell of a beating from the “leaders” of the cattle business. Those “knowledgeable” people are very quiet today.
Editor's Note: John Herrick is a former Iowa State University faculty member who is generally regarded as the father of preconditioning. Now retired, he lives in Paradise Valley, AZ.